A Digital Childhood

I like to consider myself at least reasonably intelligent. I’m no member of Mensa, but I’m hopefully able to keep pace with the majority of people. Except children; there’s no way I can possibly keep pace with them, because they are naturally intelligence, intuitive, and enquiring.

Each generation will naturally gain some skills faster and more easily than their parents and grandparents, as they live in an era where particular technologies are entirely normal, and they don’t know a world without them. My son is immensely comfortable with technology, and it’s hard for him to imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist – and yet I can, to a degree, because I didn’t have access (like all of my peers) to the same technologies. They simply didn’t exist back then.

But now they do, and child are at the forefront of this digital revolution. At least one-third of internet users around the world are children; it’s considered normal for them (at least in first world countries, where families can afford them) to own mobile phones or tablets, which they use to watch TV, play games, and get involved in the digital world. Twenty years ago, TV was the way for children to be connected; now, they aren’t dependent on a specific schedule, as “on demand” services are all the rage. I was amazed to learn as well that 81% of 8–11 years old in the UK watched Youtube – until, that is, I remembered that my son watched Youtube, and so did his friends at school. It is surprisingly normal.

This is a revolution in only parts of the world, however; a lot of children don’t have digital access. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of young people in the world are not online, and young people living in Africa were the least connected. There certainly is a huge digital divide, both geographically and in terms of experience – each generation knowing more than the one preceding it

During the 2020 lockdown, I wondered how my son would cope with the enforced separation from his friends; that was one of my biggest concerns. I was confident he would do his school work easily enough, but how would his friendships look? I shouldn’t have worried – although that’s easier said than done with hindsight – because we went out for exercise every day and met people; he also used technology to stay in touch with some friends, and also entertain himself. My concerns that he would feel permanently lonely were unfounded because of the balance we found, and I have often wondered how we would have coped in lockdown even twenty years ago, when the internet was far more in its infancy and video calling technology was nowhere near as advanced.

But children’s understanding of social interactions and the varied nature of peoples’ desires on the internet is not always very nuanced. As parents, it’s our job to show them the way, explain why we are setting boundaries, and be consistant. Every family has their own limits, of course, and that’s entirely acceptable, but it can sometimes set our teeth on edge when we see a young child using mobile phone or watching TikTok – or, my personal bugbear, when young children are playing Fortnite.

My son had an experience very recently; during the 2020 lockdown, I set him up with WhatsApp on his tablet so that he could stay in touch with some of his friends. He knew that I had access to it as well and would always check what he was talking about with his friends; not because I was nosy, but because I wanted to make sure he was safe. He always had to let me know if someone had text him, and had to ask permission if he wanted to facetime a friend; I knew the parents concerned, and was comfortable with that.

More recently, when the kids went back to school, a small group chat was set up by another child in my son’s class. That’s fine in principle; I had no problem with them occasionally chatting. But it became very invasive very quickly as it became evident not every child in the group chat had boundaries around bedtime or bad language. I had to intervene, as did another parent with whom I share a lot of values, and the group fell apart; both my son and her son came out of the group immediately, as did a couple of others. I was left feeling disappointed and annoyed; without a baseline level of respect shared amongst each family, where essential rules of kindness were enforced online and where parents knew precisely what their children were doing on their tablets and computer and phones, then how could our children learn the boundaries of acceptable behaviour? My son had to see the hard way that even his peers weren’t immune to the behaviour that I’d gently warned him was evident in some adults. He shows a lot of thoughtfulness in his interactions with others (and I help guide him to learn), and he discovered that not everyone else does.

A problem arises when children grow up learning more about the internet and technology than their parents – perhaps because the parents don’t understand or much interest. That lets the children move into unsupervised territory – which is not how parenthood works, and we should take the opportunity to educate ourselves to help our children develop.

But why do children get so absorbed by digital technology? Firstly, it’s fun; websites and games are designed to be visually attractive. It’s also modelled by their peers and adults; even as I write this on my laptop in my front room, my son is drawing some Halloween pictures and using a Youtube tutorial on his tablet to help him. I’m certainly modelling behaviour to him. Technology also allows children to feel connected to a wider world, to have some choice about what they’re using it for, and to feel good at something.

Current younger generations are known as digital natives, because they have grown up around it and know the language. Children’s brains develop around the environments they grow up in, and if they are exposed to technology as they grow, then they will become hardwired to being comfortable around these devices, in a way that older generations (whose brains might well be wired differently) don’t. If the brains of our children are indeed being hardwired differently, then we should consider if our society is need wired to what they need; is school still right for them in the current form, for example, and workplaces?

There was research done in 2011 which suggested that, because of the growing brain’s susceptibility to external influence (like technology), computers open that development to risks, including;

Aggressive behaviours in children stemming from them playing violent computer games.

Interfering with attention spans and mental wellbeing.

Potentially disrupting sleep patterns and health.

We must approach all claims about the effects of screen time with caution; it is incredibly complex, and we simply don’t understand everything about this yet.

The American Academy of Paediatricians received a lot of press coverage (and also unpopularity) when it released a statement advising parents against the use of screen media with children under the age of two. The AAP lated revised this to factor in the importance of shared (parent-child) use of screen time.

Parents need to feel empowered to step in and actively support their children when accessing technology. To do that, they need to be wlling to act, and be well-informed about technology. Parents can check and control the settings on devices, and they should get familiar with the programmes and channels their child is using. There really is no excuse; this can be done by either checking the site or game, and/or finding some information about it online.

According to some social scientists, we need to trust in the maturity and judgement of children, giving them the chance to make age-appropriate decisions about the digital world. We have to be able to trust their skills in successfully negotiating these new ways of behaving and successfully managing or avoiding risks.

But, of course, children’s perceptions of online situations may differ from adults’ perceptions. from those of adults. Parents still need to be significantly involved even if they choose this way forward. There are five main categories;

  • Problem-solving strategies. Teach children appropriate actions to allow them to tackle possible risks.
  • Planning, reflecting. Encourage children to reflect on how they would prevent hypothetical (‘what if?’) problems.
  • Information seeking. Increase children’s understanding about online security and risks.
  • Support seeking. Encourage children to approach others (parents, teachers) for advice should problems occur.
  • Fatalistic approach. Accept that risks are out there, without trivialising or generalising the situation.

Children need help to learn how to moderate their behaviour online; for us as parents to say, “Oh, I don’t understand all of this” is not appropriate. If we wanr to be good parents and teach our children how to be good human beings, we cannot ignore part of their life.

The Children’s Commissioner for England has given some very good advice about how to engage with your children on all things digital. The Commissioner’s advice can be broken down into these sections;

  1. CONNECT: Talk to your child about who they are connecting with online, what privacy settings are, and whether they disclose any private information. Emphasise that they should come to you, should they need any help or have any questions.
  2. BE ACTIVE: Encourage your child to start a physical activity such as swimming, walking, dancing, or a sport. Emphasise the importance of outdoor activities for mental health and wellbeing.
  3. GET CREATIVE: Encourage your child to go online for more than just Youtube and gaming; creativity as well, such as building complex structures in the game Minecraft, or creating video content for YouTube. This will help your child develop digital and creative skills.
  4. GIVE TO OTHERS: Encourage your child to give feedback online; positive feedback to good behaviour and negative feedback by reporting inappropriate behaviour. Use the internet together and discuss what constitutes positive and what constitutes negative behaviour. This will help children recognise and respond to it.
  5. BE MINDFUL: It may be difficult for children to put their mobile devices down or stop using the computer.

All of this requires an effort and a willingness to be interested in what your children are doing, and a willingness to show leadership as a parent. It’s all too easy to dismiss what you don’t understand, and to let your children run off uninhibited into the digital world – but that isn’t something we would do in the physical world, so it shouldn’t be something we would do in the online world either. Children need us to stand up and lead.

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